Today I have company on my Sunday stroll in Madrid. We are dressed comfortably for walking, with biscuits and water in the knapsack. We have about an hour’s walk ahead to reach the Prado Museum, where I have suggested to Arturo that we see the Raphael showing. Arturo is 25, and has visited museums with me since he was a child.
Now he has come of age at a time when the construction industry’s house of cards has collapsed. He has traveled far more than I had at his age, but his future is no less uncertain than mine when I was 25. In 1981 the prospects, for a graduate in letters, of finding a tolerable job, were slender too. And I remember it was a little after my 25th birthday when the coup attempt took place; when Tejero walked into Congress and shot holes in the ceiling — filling us first with fear for our skins, and then with shame for our country.
Each generation has its measure of bumps and lurches. Ours was in the transition to democracy after Franco. We thought that our children would live like normal Europeans, in a time reasonably free of historical stops and starts. For us the future was uncertain, but full of hope that it would not too closely resemble our recent past. But for Arturo’s age group the unemployment statistics, and the long faces of politicians, counsel resignation, emigration or — for the most resourceful — the possibility of getting along by ingenious craftwork expedients, on the margins of the mainstream economy.
Not long ago in Athens, Arturo was visiting a Greek friend that he had met on his Erasmus course in Brighton. He tells me that the friend’s grandmother is exactly like a Spanish grandmother: receiving guests with energetic gestures of hospitality and cooking for them while talking nonstop, never mind if they understand a word she is saying. Arturo has been in Cracow, Nuremberg, Rome, Nottingham and Lisbon: travelling on low-cost flights, staying with friends or in youth hostels, weaving a web of Europe-wide vision, more ample, less ideological, less marked by ethnic stereotype, than I could have had at his age.
It always comforts me to enter the Prado. The darker the times are, the more grateful I am for its enlightened solidity, the miracle of its mere existence in a land so inhospitable to what it contains. Compared with the general shabbiness and often extortionate prices of museums in Italy, the Prado is a model of what a good home for paintings ought to be.
Except in some portraits of immediate truth, Raphael leaves me cold. Beside me Arturo is bored, but patient, polite. For centuries Raphael was the invariable paradigm of beauty in European painting.
But we are heirs to the Romantic rebellion against classicism, and have modified the past accordingly. We prefer the broken, the rough and the lacerated to Raphael’s polished facies. Caravaggio, Velázquez and Goya all stand higher on our ladder than Raphael and his lineage; but all three were in varying degrees forgotten or ignored until the Romantics drummed up their reputations.
To find the gut thrills we want we leave Raphael, and head for Velázquez and then Goya. I want to show Arturo The Second of May in Madrid and The Shootings. He probably has not seen them since his schooldays; probably, too, he believes he knows them well, since they are the sort of picture with which everyone has a distracted familiarity.
But they always take me by surprise. The effect is all the greater because I see it reflected in Arturo. Two intervening centuries of atrocities, ever better documented as graphic technology improves, in no way dilute the horror of Goya’s paintings. A head in a pool of blood has all the obscenity of the things you see on TV after a car bomb attack in Baghdad. It is not the academic fiction of timelessness that moves us in art. Unlike Raphael, Goya, on this Sunday morning, is our contemporary.